Talent aplenty

Cheteshwar has scored prodigiously at every level of the game, including a magnificent 211 against England Under-19 in a `Test' at Jamshedpur, writes HARESH PANDYA.

Even as India suffered a shock defeat at the hands of archrival Pakistan in the final of the ICC Under-19 World Cup in Colombo recently, its sole consolation was the Man of the Tournament award won by Cheteshwar Pujara, who scored 349 runs from six innings at 116.33. It was an anticlimax when Pujara and his in-form partner Gaurav Dhiman failed to even open their accounts in the final and allowed the Pakistanis to win in style after they had been sent packing for 109.

"I don't say I'm not glad on being chosen as the player of the World Cup. But I would have been delighted if I had played yet another prolific innings and helped India chase what was a moderate target. We're confident of winning after dismissing Pakistan cheaply. I seem to have let down my team. I don't think I'll be able to forgive myself for this particular failure," the usually quiet Cheteshwar told this writer a few minutes after the Indian lads' dream turned into a nightmare.

But what a dream run he had in the tournament! In the two warm-up games against England and Australia, he scored 26 and 60 respectively. Soon enough he was the cynosure. In India's opening match against Namibia, he made a polished 66 not out and shared a first-wicket partnership of 147 with Dhiman, who scored a swashbuckling 90.

Cheteshwar was well and truly on course to dominate the competition. He scored a fine 47 not out against Scotland but failed against Sri Lanka. However, he made up for that with a splendid 97 against the West Indies in the quarterfinal. Dhiman, who made a breezy 74, helped Cheteshwar put on 110 for the opening wicket.

Cheteshwar was at his best against England in the semifinal, scoring a scintillating 129 after earning a reprieve when on just one. He scored 21 of the 25 runs conceded by Huw Waters in the final over of the innings. Even earlier, he had been one of the stars for India in the Afro-Asia Cup, scoring 65 against Sri Lanka and 81 versus Pakistan in league matches and capping it with another 65 against Sri Lanka in the final without being dismissed even once.

When asked for his comments on the rising star, the chairman of the national selection committee Kiran More said: "Cheteshwar is a precocious player. He is a compact, organised batsman and appears very, very talented. His consistently good performances are in keeping with his prodigious talents. He is a heavy scoring, big innings player endowed with an ideal temperament for cricket at the highest level. He has the makings of a complete batsman. "Of course, a player of Cheteshwar's ability can be an asset to any side. If he keeps performing as successfully in first-class cricket as he has done in junior cricket all these years, there is no reason why he can't make it to Team India one day," added More.

Cheteshwar was unimpressive on his Ranji Trophy debut, against Vidarbha at Rajkot earlier this year, but in his second match versus Goa at the same venue, he made a solid 145 and helped Saurashtra win outright.

Born in Rajkot on January 25, 1988, Cheteshwar has a good physique — 6'' tall and weighing 70kg. The ability to judge the length of the ball quickly helps him play both the spinners and the speedsters with aplomb. He has a rich repertoire of attractive shots, the cover-drive being outstanding, and he is particularly strong on the off. Above all, he possesses tremendous self-confidence and concentration.

But then this is not surprising as cricket is flowing in his veins. His grandfather Shivlal Pujara had represented the erstwhile state of Dhrangadhra, while his father Arvind and uncle Bipin were successful Ranji Trophy players. The latter, had also toured the West Indies with the Indian Under-16 team as a wicketkeeper in the early 1980s.

An alumnus of Rajkot's famous Virani School, which has produced many good cricketers, including Karsan Ghavri, the right-hander has honed his skills under the watchful eye of his father. Cheteshwar has not had any other coach in his life.

"I breathe cricket because it's my only passion. I've no special hobbies and interests except cricket. But I've never neglected my studies," said Cheteshwar, who cleared his 10th standard exams from Rameshbhai Chhaya Vidyalaya, Rajkot. He, however, could not take his 12th standard exams because of a crowded cricket calendar. Cheteshwar was very close to his mother, Reena, who succumbed to cancer on October 6 last year. Just before she breathed her last, she had talked to Cheteshwar, who was preparing to return to Rajkot from Bhavnagar, having just finished a match there. He was obviously shocked when he reached home and knew what had happened. He became so quiet and serious for the next few weeks that his father was a bit worried about him. But Cheteshwar never allowed his personal tragedy to affect his cricket and continued to perform impressively.

"While my father took care of the technical side of my cricket, my mother played a definite role in my mental make-up. She instilled certain good virtues in me as a sportsman and as a human being — namely honesty, sincerity, humility, self-confidence and self-discipline. She always wanted to see me scale the heights of success in cricket. It's always her dream that I should play Test cricket for the country one day. Her premature death has made me more determined to realise her dream. I know she would have been ecstatic seeing me play the way I've done in the recent past, especially in the Under-19 World Cup," said Cheteshwar, who is also extremely religious.

Cheteshwar has scored prodigiously at every level of the game. He first attracted national headlines after scoring a monumental, unbeaten 306 — a national record — out of Saurashtra's total of 460 for five declared in a West Zone Under-14 tie against Baroda in 2000-01. He was still about a week shy of his 13th birthday and this knock had come close on the heels of his 138 against Mumbai. What followed was an amazing sequence of big scores in the age-group tournaments conducted by the BCCI. He made 200 not out against Maharashtra in an Under-17 fixture in 2003-04 and an unbeaten 206 versus Mumbai in an Under-22 tie in 2004-05.

He even made Fleet Street take note of his genius when he scored a magnificent 211 for India Under-19 against England Under-19 in the `Test' at Jamshedpur in 2004-05. Cheteshwar was then chosen, along with Rudra Pratap Singh and V. R.V. Singh, to train at the Australian Cricket Academy for six weeks under the Border-Gavaskar scholarship scheme in June 2005. However, he was denied a visa in the end. Cheteshwar has taken even this huge disappointment in his stride and continues to dazzle.